A Grocery, and an Institution

by Joe Kind | 3/5/15 7:50pm

03.06.15.Mirror.Tanzi-New-World_Courtesy-of-Joe-Kind
The Tanzi Bros. Grocery occupied 48 ½ Main Street for more than five decades.
Source: Joseph Kind

1897. The 136th class of Dartmouth College graduated. The 141st class matriculated.

In a region dominated by the rise of steam power and cotton production, Hanover offered different opportunities for economic sustenance. An immigrant to small-town America from large-city Italy could make it here. Enter Angelo Tanzi, stonecutter. After a few years practicing his trade in Massachusetts and Connecticut, he moved to the Upper Valley to work for his brother, who owned a grocery store in Lebanon. Mr. Tanzi saw an opportunity and went for it — Hanover had no grocery store to speak of at the turn of the 20th century. He came up to the town to wheel a fruit cart around the College’s campus. He became so popular that then-College President William Jewett Tucker asked him and his brother to consider upgrading their small carts into a fully fledged grocery store in town. Perhaps his growing popularity among the community came from the mobility his cart gave him, helping him meet students and faculty looking for a healthy snack in between classes.

Thus was born the Tanzi Brothers Grocery Store, on 48 ½ Main Street, Hanover, NH 03755. During the store’s earliest days, the Tanzis sold just bananas and peanuts.

Flash forward to October 1961. Harry Tanzi wheels his father’s cart around campus, not as a small fruit vendor but an accomplished businessman. A photograph of him in Hanover’s bicentennial parade that year graces the cover of Dartmouth Alumni Magazine.

***

Harry Tanzi traced his love for Dartmouth to the second fire of Dartmouth Hall in 1904. Harry was seven years old at the time, one of nine children in his family. The fire was quick, the kind where nothing in the building could be saved. Harry was devastated, as was the entire Hanover community. Dartmouth Hall was the symbol of the small town’s glory, the center of Hanover’s orbit. Even today, as a tour guide for the undergraduate admissions office, I mention the fire on each of my tours. The fire was so awful, I tell my visitors, that students immediately called alumni, friends and family members to raise enough funds to rebuild the building. Students did not just raise enough money, I explain, but they did so in under 24 hours. I joke that in today’s age of technology and social media, that’s like saying my classmates and I could probably raise enough money to rebuild a fallen Baker Tower in an hour or two.

Harry Tanzi was the big fish of Hanover’s small pond, claiming to know thousands of Dartmouth alumni personally.

“People ask me what class I graduated from, and I say that it’s the Class of 1910-1977,” Tanzi said in a 1977 profile by The Dartmouth.

He added later in the article, “My brothers and I were just like the students — we raised as much hell.”

Only one of his brothers actually attended the school as a student.

Harry Tanzi and his brothers took over for their father when he retired in 1927. Harry remained part of the store until its closing in 1969, running the store with different combinations of brothers and in-laws. The space was small and humble, but intimate — 42 by 14 square feet, six storefront windows. Everett Wood ’38, honoring the grocery store’s closing in a 1991 article penned for the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, described the Tanzi “style of doing business”: “Know everyone in town; like everyone you know; trust everyone, until proven otherwise; carry the finest vegetables and fruit the region has to offer; deliver to the doorstep in all weathers; forget about sleep; and entice the younger generation with ice cream (hand-cranked), peanuts (store-roasted) and irresistible penny candy.”

Everyone at Dartmouth knew all of the merchants on Main Street, and the merchants knew everyone at Dartmouth. Even so, the Tanzis were different. Harry would stand outside his store, striking up conversations with everyone who passed by. He was known for his remarkable memory — keeping so many names and events straight — and for storytelling. A customer would walk into the store and be greeted with banter between Harry Tanzi and his brothers. Tanzi always had something to say, some observation to broadcast to whomever would listen. His lively spirit, laced with humor and wit, seemed to rub off on the small store. It was as if the shop had its own pulse. Slow, heavy breaths. Deep.

Some say that for a while the Tanzi Bros. Grocery store competed with Baker Library as the most sought-after destination “on campus.”

Because that’s the thing — the town was also the campus. Separating Hanover and Dartmouth was next to impossible.

Sometimes little kids in the store would eat candies before remembering to pay for them first. The “punishment”: extra time spent in the store roasting peanuts. Other times when the Tanzis were stretched thin on busy days, they would send customers down to the basement to look for things themselves. The basement was a sprawling space larger than the store itself, down creaky wooden stairs and wracked by shelves with a variety of products scattered across them. A customer was lucky to find whatever he was looking for, but they kept coming. On these same busy days, with too few Tanzis to keep someone behind the cash register, Harry Tanzi and his brothers would teach customers how to use the cash register and get the exact change themselves. It was a rite of passage to learn how to work the cash register. It meant you were a Tanzi Bros. regular. No one ever stole money from the cash register. Tanzi kept close records of his business sales and expenses — leather binders full of hand-written statements and thick wads of check copies — so he would have known otherwise.

Tanzi freely professed that he wasn’t necessarily well read — after all, he paid more attention to his bank book or checkbook.

He consistently sent off the College’s football team with a crate of apples when they left campus for an away game. The bus would roll through Main Street and stop at the store, and in would waddle Tanzi with his heavy crate. He claimed to have attended hundreds of home football games — 350 to be exact — and continued to attend them after he retired. He and his brother would sell tickets at the gate, though Harry said they would often get distracted and spend the majority of their time chatting with alumni.

Harry Tanzi was a witness to many of Dartmouth’s most memorable moments. He was around for five of Dartmouth’s 18 presidents. He remembered meeting Robert Frost and President Calvin Coolidge. He donated his extra fruit boxes for Homecoming bonfires every year. He was there when students created Green Key weekend in the early 1940s. (His store sold 36,000 cans of beer and 100 kegs that weekend, he said.) The Tanzis were the first and only store owners in Hanover to acquire an alcohol license in the years following prohibition.

“Two-thirds of our business was with Dartmouth students,” Tanzi said in 1977. “Since the drinking age at the time was 21, the administration was worried about us selling to minors. We told them that we’d run the beer business and they should run the College.”

While Tanzi had insinuated that the grocery business would be best left to the grocers, it wasn’t students’ wallets that he was concerned about. The community and its wellbeing, not its money, was what drove the Tanzi Bros. business.

“Actually, we knew that if we didn’t sell them — the students — beer, they’d have to go out of town to get it, which was really dangerous,” he said in 1977. “So we talked it over with the liquor commission, which let us be our own judge.”

In the 1950s, Harry began to become an active participant in local politics. In the 1950s, he was unanimously appointed the “honorary mayor” of Hanover. For years, it was Harry who led the annual Shriner extravaganza parade, behind the governor of Vermont, the governor of New Hampshire and the College president—in that order. He hosted a “non-political” rally for then-New York governor Nelson Rockefeller ’30 on the front steps of his store. Pictures of them shaking hands, looking out into the crowds made local and national news coverage. On all of Hanover’s behalf, in front of hundreds of squeezed bodies on Main Street, Harry Tanzi gave Nelson A. Rockefeller the keys to the city.

“With or without his topper, smiling, waving, joking, his honor the mayor added flourish wherever he appeared,” Wood wrote in the Alumni Magazine.

***

“It would take a good size book to name all the good customers and friends that we used to take orders from and deliver to with horse and buggy,” Tanzi wrote in a 1969 Valley News restrospective.

After working 80-hour weeks for so many years, Harry retired from full-time work in 1957. Harry’s brother Charlie and sister-in-law Harriet ran the store until 1969, when exhaustion crippled them too. The Tanzis closed up shop and sold their space to the Specialty Shop, which, tragically, burned down less than a decade later. Tanzi passed away peacefully in 1990. The only sign of the Tanzi Bros. Grocery store in town is in the empty space on Main Street next to Ledyard Bank and what was the Hanover Hardware store.